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Monday, 1 November 2010

Spotlight On: The Railway Clearing House

The Railway Clearing House (RCH) was a massive organisation within the structure of Britain’s railway industry by 1914. Yet, very few people were, or are, aware of existence because it was not glamorous, it was not high-profile, and its employees were mainly clerks, probably some of the most uninteresting of Victorian workers. But, the RCH was vital to the efficient working of the railway industry up until 1948, and was the facilitator of the development of standardisation of rules, procedures and technologies in its early days.

Visualise, if you will, the emergent British railway network of the 1830s and early 1840s. Small companies were springing up all over the nation, and in addition to the many technical problems that arose, through booking and the transit of goods wagons from one company to another could be a contentious issue. This was because the companies involved would argue over the division of receipts between them, as the mileage tables that they used showed the distance between stations as being different. Additionally, the rates different companies charged for carriage were different between the railway lines. Something needed to be done.

On the 2nd January 1842, the Chairman of the London and Birmingham Railway, George Car Glyn, invited delegates from nine railway companies to attend a meeting at 11 Drummond Street, near Euston. These nine companies were all operating in the industrial heartland of Britain, and as membership was always voluntary, many companies, including the Great Western, London, Chatham & Dover and London, Brighton and South Coast did not join them until the 1860s. However, most of Britain’s railway companies were members by the 1870s.

The RCH had five aims: To arrange the through booking of passengers and personally owned horses and carriages, to divide passenger receipts between companies dependent on mileage travelled, to promote the through transportation of goods and the charging rates on a ‘per mile’ basis, and to provide a place where all debts owed by one company to another could be settled. Each company was charged £5 per year per station owned, plus an additional levy was charged dependent on the proportion of receipts processed relating to each company. To aid this process, in 1847 the RCH employed number takers, to check the number of wagons running on foreign lines. Further, in this year, the first book of goods rates classifications were published, standardising goods rates. Lastly, in 1853, the RCH published it first book of distance tables facilitating the settlement of accounts between companies. On a more basic level, the standardisation of ticket printing and stamping of ticket printing was also facilitated through the RCH.

With this structure in place, the RCH also began to act as a facilitator of standardisation of elements of industry practice beyond matters of rates and ticketing. In the industry’s early days, different companies did not use standard technologies on their lines. Signalling on the Great Western was different to that the London and North Western, buffers were at different heights, couplings between locomotives and rolling stock was different. This was a problem, given that the number of connections between companies was growing, and trains, wagons and carriages were required to move from one railway line to another.

Thus the RCH became the forum for the standardisation of railway practice, and much of this was done through the work of the different conferences that brought together the officials of different companies, such as the Goods Managers’, General Managers’, Engineers’ and Accountants’ Conferences. In September 1847, the RCH the member companies agreed to adopt Greenwich Meantime, a move which allowed time to be standardised across the nation. By 1870, the RCH had ensured that most companies were using the standard semaphore signals, some of which are still with us today. Indeed, many other technologies were standardised through the RCH, such as buffer heights, running board levels and vacuum brakes. Lastly, in 1876, after much wrangling, the RCH enabled the production of a standard rule book for all railway companies. While I cannot begin to list everything that was standardised here, it is clear that the RCH was important in shaping how Britain’s railways operated.

The RCH grew over the years and moved far beyond the humble beginnings at Drummond Place, and by 1900 it employed 2000 clerks at Seymour Street. However, what the RCH represented was the fact that the British railway industry, which was dense and developed very quickly, needed some way for the companies to cooperate and work together. It was, therefore, a response at a critical time to a problem that the embryonic British railway industry faced. It would go on to shape the British railway network through the standardisation of technology and procedure. It ceased functioning in 1955.

For more information see: Bagwell, Philip The Railway Clearing House in the British Economy, 1842-1922, (London, 1968)

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